Character names – how and whyPosted: July 29, 2011
When creating a work of fiction, it can be difficult to find the perfect name for a character. Sometimes you may want to go with something fairly normal – especially if your concept is set in today’s world with a regular set of characters. Other times, when your character is special in some way, you’ll want their name to reflect their importance. At other times, you may want a “cool” character to have a shortened name, or a nickname. This is good also, it provides characterisation. But that’s not all there is to it…
Names, much like anything else, have associations. Jason for example, always strikes me as a powerful and brave name – mostly from the people called Jason I knew, but also because of the connections with other characters named Jason, for example Jason and the Argonauts. Other names too, for example Steven. Most people named Steven in my live previously, I’ve never really got on with – they usually think they’re too cool to hang out with me (in my experience anyway). As such, if I’m writing a character that matches up with that personality, I’d most likely call them Steven.
But that’s all well and good, but not everyone has the same set of connotations when it comes to names. That’s still fine – because you’re meant to be developing a character through the actual character, not the name anyway. What I would discourage is having a name in your head with a specific person in mind – especially with personality. Remember, you’re trying to mould the character as the story progresses rather than have them static, with no development.
Then there’s the times when you’ll want a name that’s more unique. Look at what the person is meant to represent. I always liked The Matrix’s Neo, because part of the reason you knew he was the one, is because it’s an anagram of his name (Neo). Narrative foreshadowing is great! But what about other examples? Well, first you have to decide whether it’ll be their real name, or just a nickname. If it’s their real name, chances are s/he would have a special personality – most likely a lone wolf of sorts. If it’s a nickname, perhaps it’s either indicative of either past or future events. A character named Serenity for example, might bring peace at the end of a story. Of course, you can contrast names as well. Maybe a character named Pandora, for example can have no hope in the story – doomed to fail from the start. Oh, and don’t get to cliched with your character names – they’ll leave a sour taste in your audiences mouths.
But going back to normal names, it can often be helpful to name a character, when you’ve never actually met someone of that name. For example, to try and get around simply “copying and pasting” an existing personality into the story, I named my protagonist in Consolidating, Eric. I’ve never met an Eric before, and it seems like a likable, if a little shy and inexperienced name.
On the other hand, it can also be used for intertextuality. What’s interextuality? It’s referencing another media text (book, film, TV series, etc…) to create a link. That’s why I named the main character for Boytoy Beta, Lois. I had Robocop’s Lois in mind, a strong woman but someone who would stand up and fight for others. Also, let’s not forget Lois Lane…
So think long and hard about your character names – once you’ve got the perfect one, things will seem to fall into place. Use existing connotations as a template for their personality, but don’t let it overrule the character development. Oh, and try to make them as unique as possible. I’ve never seen a film or TV where the main character has the exact name as a minor character (with the exception of when they’re named after them, or if it’s done for deliberate comic effect).